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tv   Tavis Smiley  WHUT  September 2, 2009 8:30am-9:00am EDT

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tavis: good evening from los angeles, i'm tavis smiley. first up, a conversation with pulitzer prize winning journalist alex jones. he covered the press for the "new york times" for other a decade. his new book is called "losing the news." also tonight, former "e.r." star mekhi phifer is here, he's
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joining the cast of "lie to me" this season. that's coming up right now. >> there are so many things wal-mart is looking forward to doing, like helping people live better, but mostly we're looking forward to helping build stronger communities and relationships. with your help, the best is yet to come. >> nationwide insurance proudly supports tv tv tv. -- "tavis smiley." tavis and nationwide insurance, working to improve financial literacy and the economic empowerment that comes with it. >> ♪ nationwide is on your side ♪ >> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. [captioning made possible by kcet public television]
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>> alex jones is a pulitzer prize winning journalist who covered the press for "the new york times" for other a decade, he's now head of the shorenstein center. his new book is "losing the news," mr. jones, nice to have you on the show. >> i'm glad to be here. tavis: i want to go to the subtitle of the book, "the future of the news that feeds democracy." why that distinction? >> the point i'm trying to make is the news that feeds democracy is not the same as the conversation that feeds democracy. the conversation is fed by the news. the hard news, the reported news, the factual news. what i think we're moving forward is a world in which there will be vast conversation but not much hard news that will feed that conversation with the factual basis so it can be an informed conversation. tavis: is news these days to your mind leading the
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conversation or following the conversation? >> i think it does both. it's a intime yotic -- simbiotic relationship. there's more news, more conversation, sometimes the conversation prompts the direction the news takes. without the news reported news, what i'm talking about, the reported news, done by professional journalist, what we have is a lot of conversation, which can be hot air, if it's not rooted in some kind of factual basis. tavis: the news as we know it, reported by professional journalists, is now in trouble. why? >> i think the way i look at it is this. about 85% of the news i'm talking about, the news of politics, policy, investigative reporting, that kind of thing, is done by newspapers. newspapers may not be the mechanism whereby people get the news, in terms of how it's delivered. they may get it on television they may get it even on blog sites or that kind of thing. but the generation of that new
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still comes and has historically come mostly, overwhelmingly, in fact, from newspapers. newspapers because of the digital revolution and because of course of the economic situation they're in have been cutting back on the people and the quality of the people who do that news there, not devoting the resources to it they should, in my belief, and i think that something that, if it continues, could hurt us badly as a society. tavis: forgive my naivete, why the cutbacks in this area? >> what's happened is the digital world has taken away some of the staple advertising revenues that made it possible for newspapers to fund this kind of news. i think the fact is that people bought newspapers for all kinds of reasons. they bought them for classified ads, for the comics for the cross word puzzles, for the sports, as well as the news. but they got the whole package. the people who bought it for the cross word puzzle were
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essentially subsidizing the people who wanted it for the news because the expense part of the news operation was headed in that direction. with the economy and the -- with the economy in the tank and advertising going increasingly online and away from newspapers that money that was used for that kind of reporting is drying up. tavis: so why can't then, these institutions, newspapers specifically, assign those professional, top line reporters to covering stories and disseminating that information via cyberspace, as opposed to the printed page? >> they will and they are. i think that's going to be, of course, part of the future. they're going to be online. but the problem is that newspaper advertising in its printed form generates vastly more revenue than advertising online. they've never been able yet to crack the economic model that would allow them to generate the advertising revenues online to allow them to sustain the kind
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of journalism i think we all expect. tavis: if everybody -- help me understand this, then. if everybody, we're told, is going to the internet to get news and everything else, why, then, are papers -- have papers not been able to maximize profit on the internet if they're putting basically the same stories online as in print? >> what's online is in vast, vast other things as well. people online can go wherever they want to go. they don't go to the newspaper to get sports news they don't have to go to the newspaper to get gossip they don't have to go to the newspaper to get a cross word puzzle. the web is a vast place to go. right now, newspapers are trying to find their markets online, but they haven't been able to do so and they also have the problem that the web tends to want to be free. and newspapers have not been able to find a way, most of them, to charge the people who want to read the news, but are not willing to pay for it. tavis: what you're basically
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saying to me, then, is if there's no money in news reporting, there will be no news reporting? >> exactly. i think the problem is finding a new economic model that will support what i think newspapers have historically taken as their public service mission to provide this kind of news. but without the money, it ain't going to happen. tavis: god rest his soul, but donohue wit was given a lot of kudos when he passed just days ago -- but don hewitt was given a lot of kudos when he passed just days ago, but many thought he was to blame for pushing the envelope off the table where news could make money. where you put the -- whether you put the finger on hewitt or whoever, where did this begin where news have to make money rather than just be news for its own sake.
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>> "60 minutes," which don hewitt invented, i credit him, i think he create ated maybe the single best news program ever but he made it clear to cbs that they could make a lot of money. when they happened, i think the television culture is we don't care how you make the money, all we want to do is make the money. we want to get the eyeballs there. the problem is, we're all human beings. people would rather spend their time and devote their eyeballs on things that are fun and pleasurable than doing things like watching programs on policy questions. but they also want somebody to be watching the store. they want somebody to be out there doing the watchdog role. that's the problem. they may not support it with their eyeballs, but they want somebody to do it. it's got to make economic sense or it won't be done, unfortunately. that's what this book is about. trying to get at how to solve that problem and what's at stake when, you know, this is happening to the newspaper
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industry because they are the ones who generate almost all of that kind of news. tavis: for the consumer, what is at stake? >> i would stay, -- i would say, as far as the consumer is concerned, all you have to do is imagine what will happen at your state government and city government if nobody's there looking over the shoulder of these people and holding them to account. if no investigative reporting is being done. if nobody is there checking in to what the mayor is doing, what the governor is doing, what the senators are doing. what's what's happening in america now. a lot of these places that i think everybody knows need to be watched carefully are not being watched, you know what happens then. tavis: i'm not going to hold my breath on this, alex jones, but is it possible, the boss raised years ago, i want my mtv, can people rise up and say, i want my news? >> i think they will if they understand what they're losing and i think there's a real opportunity for newspapers -- they've cut themselves to the
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bone. they were operated fat and happy during the 1980's and 1990's. this economic crisis has made them lean and mean. when the economy improves, they're going to have an opportunity, at least a chance, i believe, to rebuild these audiences to reconnect with people and provide that journalism in a way that will make economic sense. i hope i'm not just being pie in the sky optimistic. i don't think i am. but i can tell you this. the people who are interested in this, i would ask that they buy a copy or buy a subscription to a newspaper and then write the editor and say, i'm a paying customer of yours and i want you to provide news. i want you to give me news. if you want my business, that's what i need. i think people would be shocked at how effective that actually might be i believe people would pay attention. tavis: i'm glad you went there. i wanted to ask, as i will now, how much of this drama, this desperation, is of the newsmakers, i shouldn't say newsmakers but the people who
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delivers the news, newspapers and television news, how much is of their own creation? what i mean to suggest by that is, if they those who deliver the news, got off track, whether you want to call it the tabloidization of news or whatever, started giving us stuff that ain't hard news? >> i think you can blame them for it, that's a problem they have lost the confidence of a lot of people. but i think the point is that this is very important. it's certainly not perfect. i don't try to portray newspapers in the past as ever being perfect. they're a human endover. -- endeavor. but as institutions, institutions in town, and institutions of our society and the way we govern ourselves and who we are, i think it is really important that they not go away or that these news organizations that, you know, have been newspapers continue to exist and continue to provide that, you know, that role. you may say that they don't do it as much as they should, but
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they do it a lot more than anybody else has. tavis: there are a number of casting aspersion on them, not "the new york times," not the "l.a. times," not "the wall street journal," but there are a lot of papers a lot smaller than those papers, who have been consistent from the beginning at reporting hard news and they don't have the subscription levels the big boys do. what's the argument then for why they don't have the same subscriber levels others do if they're in the business of consistently giving us hard news? they would argue folks don't want hard news? >> a lot of people don't want hard news that doesn't mean we shouldn't have it and those people who don't want hard news still want somebody to be generating that hard news. fupt to imagine what it's like, imagine your city council and yao your mayor and governor and senators without anybody looking over their shoulders. i think whether you want to read it yourself or not, you want somebody looking over what's going on at the school board,
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looking at what's going on in the budget, looking at what's going on in the state capital. we're all citizens here. even if you're not going to take your citizens' responsibility seriously enough to inform yourself, upt somebody to be watching the store. tavis: let me say in 30 seconds, what do we do, everyday people, to make sure we don't lose the news? >> buy a subscription to the newspaper, write to the editor and demand real news. tavis: spoken like a newsman. right to the point. >> like a newspaper man. tavis: "losing the news: the future of news that feeds democracy," by ea alex jones. thank you for being here. >> thank you very much. tavis: up next, former "er" star mekhi phifer, every she that wants to extend itself finds
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mekhi, we'll talk about why that is. stay with us. tavis: please welcome mekhi phifer back to this program. for six season he is starred on one of tv's longest-running, most popular dramas, "er." he's going to be joining the cast of "lie to me." here's a clip. >> the president specifically asked for you. >> you know i can tell when you're lying. >> you have a contractual obligation to give f.b.i. cases the priority. that's not going to cut it. >> it will do. >> let me be clear, my ass is on the line. tavis: i'm going to start killing you the pickup king. every series that needs to do something, hires you. "e. reform," "lie to me," --
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"er," "lie to me," why is that? >> i like to have a good time with it, i like to bring a fresh presence to whatever i attend. tavis: what's the challenge, uniquely, i suspect, when you come into a cast like "er," like "lie to me" when it's off and running? >> it's about getting in where you fit in. it's about bringing your presence and your fortitude to it. and it's always nice to be welcomed with open arms. and both situations, that's been the case. they've allowed me to put my best foot forward and put in some good work. and they're writing really great for me. tavis: for those who have not seen "lie to me wts what's the show about and tell us about your character? >> it's focused on tim ross' character, he's an expression reader. he can tell if you're lying
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because they say that all human beings, no matter what race, creed, color, or whatever you are, have the same basic emotions when it comes to telling the truth and lying, whether you're showing genuine happiness or sadness. that's basically what he does. he's been hired by the f.b.i. to handle all their top priority cases. i'm an f.b.i. agent that joined the group because they needed my presence there to make arrests and solve cases. tavis: when you -- this only happened a couple of times, i don't want to make more of it than what it is, but what's your process for deciding whether or not the character is right for you to join an enkemmable cast? you played a doctor on "er," what brother doesn't want to play a doctor, so i don't blame you for that, but what's your process for figuring out whether it works for you? >> i tend to gravitate toward strong characters, not a procedural type of person, not
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just handing out or spitting out information. someone who sort of is interwoven into the way the characters move. i like to have a personal story as well so that the audience can sort of into who this character is and sort of sympathize or empathize with him and glow groh with that character. because that's the thing you have to focus on, especially if you're going to do television and it's going to be episodic and hopefully go on for seasons, you want the audience to grow with you. that's what i look for when i look at scripts. tavis: "er" fans saw that trajectory. beyond being an f.b.i. agent in "lie to me," tell me about the charactering the person, what are we going to learn about the person? >> i did the last two episodes of the first season and just joined the cast. what we're going to do is into who he was as an f.b.i. agent. tavis: you're going back. >> he's been undercover for
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years and having to deal with certain aspects and things that could have been life-changing for him. we'll get more into this personal aspect who is he dating? does he have a girl friend? all that kind of stuff. his home life. tavis: when you come onto a show like the two we've been talking about tonight, what role does mekhi, the person, play in helping craft the character? is that just handed to you? do you get involved in this? >> just like with "er," i would consult with the writers all the time about various aspects of the character, what i think rings true, what doesn't ring true, even when i joined this cast, i sat with the writers and the creator and the show runners and talked about where we want the character to go and what they did was they asked me about my life as mekhi and how i grew up and certain aspects of my life which helps give them ideas
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that are more personal to myself and which will be in turn more personal to the audience that will help them into who i am. tavis: i'm laughing on the inside. i'm like what does a brother tell some white folk about being an f.b.i. agent? what did you say? what is that like? >> an array of things. but the thing is that's the point. it's not just the process of being an f.b.i. agent. anybody can be an f.b.i. agent. but what make this is f.b.i. agent tick. from his life experience, if he's from sort of an inner city situation he may have more street smarts in certain respects, even though he's still intelligent, still very upright and f.b.i., but he may be able to read into a situation in a different way than someone who may be his counterpart may not because of where he's coming from and his environment. tavis: there's some folk, thankfully, i suspect, from our perspective as fans of yours and
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viewers and i suspect also from your perspective, thankfully, you have not been typecast, because there are some folks who get a chance to do a show, and when it runs -- you were on it for six conditions, you're on something for six seasons, you're blessed to get that paycheck for that long, but a lot of folk get typecast and can't come back into episodic television. why are you able to bounce around like this successfully? >> i come into the film world so i've had an i ray of roles people have recognized me for. two, that goes back to what i roles. i don't want to choose a role that's going to typecast me. with "er" it was a growth process. came on the show a little bit, some would describe as arrogant, i would say self-confidence. sort of defensive. you saw that character grow to be one who was running the
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hospital, becoming an attending, dealing with his personal life, finding out about his father and his family and what makes him tick. with that, i think, helps people see you in a three dimensional light rather than a one-dimensional light. so it really helps me to choose the roles that not only keep me interested but keep the audience interested. tavis: being multidimensional and complex as a character are qualities any actor in this town would crave. you want to show the complexity of the character. does that take on an added dimension, given that you're an african-american male? >> i don't know. i think people in general -- tavis: they show us so often in this town as one-dimensional. >> you know, it can be challenging at times, i've read an array of scripts, i'm going, come on guys, come on guys.
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but when you find a place on something like "lie to me" or "er" that show us in a multifaceted light, it is a breath of fresh air. i think people in general are multifaceted. what it is is, now we're just about letting everyone know that everybody is multifaceted, not just these people over here or this race over here. so i think that as time goes on we start to realize that. and people start to be more open to understanding that we are all colex and it's more interesting to see us in a complex light. tavis: what do you, looking back on it, make of the fact that you had a chance to be on "er" for six seasons? >> i attribute it to the films i've done. i didn't have to audition or anything, they just wanned me to join the cast, which was very flattering, it was such a great show. i remember wondering my first
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day if i could pull it off. tavis: i assume the dialogue on "lie to me" is easier to remember. >> it is. i don't think people realize it's like speaking spanish in a sense, because we're not doctors. but i've always portrayed strong characters. we talked about "uninvited guests," a small, independent film i did, those kind of characters that are complex, strong, an unpredictable i think helped me have my longevity on the show. tavis: chris, my producer, and i were laughing with "er" they let you get in the ambulance accident at the end of the season we wait all summer long for a negro to die when the show came back. >> you know, actually, it's funny because i was -- i knew it was the last season. it was going to be a short season. i felt like it was time to go. and i spoke to john wells and we
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sat down and they didn't really want me to leave but if we were going to go, let's go with a bang rather than just say, ok, bye, guys, maybe i'll see you at another hospital. it was a cliffhanger. it was a very emotional episode. i remember my mom calling, crying, i thought somebody in the family died. i was like, mom, what's happening? that kind of stuff. so it was also flattering to see how many people came up and expressed their love for the character. tavis: finally, back to "lie to me," can you look at somebody and tell when they're lying to you? do you have that gift? >> i just started the show, you know. no, we need -- it would take a little more studying, you know. that's not my level of expertise on the show, yet. i'm starting to learn about what the lightning group, which is the place that i'm working for now, and how they work and how, you know, all the microexpression stuff works. we'rstill in the beginning stages of that.
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tavis: we should all be so gifted, just to look and say, you're lying. >> i'd play a lot more poker. tavis: you play poker and you're pretty good, i hear? >> i do play poker. tavis: "lie to me" second season, starting now. that's our show for tonight, catch me on the weekends on pri, public radio international. access our podcast on our website. good night from l.a., thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith. >> for more information on today's show, visit tv tv at pbs.org. -- visit tavis smiley at pbs.org. tavis: join me next time for a look at how or if ted kennedy's death will affect the health care debate.
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also abinterview with singer ledisi. >> wal-mart is looking forward to so many things. we're looking forward to billing stronger relationships. with your help, the best is yet to come. >> night wade insurance proudly supports tavis smiley. tavis and nationwide, promoting financial education and the economic empowerment that comes with it. >> and from pbs viewers like you. thank you.
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